Politics & Government

Texas forensics panel slaps down Perry's chairman over arson probe

DALLAS — Several members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission on Friday rebuffed efforts by the chairman to clear state fire marshal investigators of findings of professional negligence or misconduct in the Todd Willingham capital murder case.

The case has been a major political controversy in Texas since Texas Gov. Rick Perry fired the chairman and three members of the panel last year shortly before the panel was to release a report highly critical of the fire marshal's work in the Willingham case. That work was critical to Willingham's conviction of charges he intentionally set the 1991 fire that killed his three children. Perry authorized Willingham's execution in 2004.

Earlier this summer, the new panel members issued a draft report that cleared the fire marshal of "professional negligence" and "misconduct."

But several members of the commission on Friday took issue with the new report.

"The investigators followed the standard of practice by investigators at the time, but what was not followed was the 'science' at the time," commission member Sarah Kerrigan said. "There is a disconnect between the investigator and the science."

Kerrigan said Friday that the commission may come up with a "totally different report."

Others agreed.

"We have a lot of conflicting information ... It boils down to what the science was and the standards for fire investigations ... (the conflict) is troubling," said commission member Arthur Eisenberg.

John Bradley, who Perry appointed commission chairman last year, was clearly frustrated by the discussion. He argued that not enough credible and reliable information existed to blame arson investigators.

"Fire standards have evolved. ... We are not tasked with deciding guilt or innocence," he told commission members. It is about "whether fire investigators exhibited significant negligence or misconduct."

Later in the meeting, after concerns were expressed about the draft report, he said:

"I’m a little bit tired of a committee's continued criticism of individual words when (I am) trying to reach a consensus," Bradley said.

Perry removed the then chairman of the panel, Sam Bassett, and commission members Alan Levy, a prosecutor in Tarrant County, and Aliece Watts, a forensic scientist, in October, two days before the obscure panel was scheduled to discuss a forensic report challenging the arson findings that that led to Willingham’s execution. Perry later removed a fourth member of the panel.

Willingham said that he was asleep in his house when the fire started and denied that he deliberately killed his daughters.

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